Why the Gates Foundation wants you to talk about poop

By Catherine Cheney 18 November 2016

Construction of new Teraaka toilet block in Kiribati. Photo by: DFAT / CC BY

Recalling a visit to Firmenich, a family-owned fragrance company in Geneva, Switzerland, Bill Gates described why he was interested in learning more about applications of odor blocking technology.

First, he put his nose in a glass sniffing tube that smelled of pit latrine odor. Next, he put his nose in a tube with an added fragrance that blocks certain olfactory receptors, doing for our noses what noise cancelling headphones do for our ears. And he sniffed a floral scent.

The big question he poses in his recent blog post “A perfume that smells like poop?” is whether this technology will make a difference for the 1 in 3 people who lack access to improved sanitation. Firmenich, a partner of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is launching pilots in communities across India and Africa to understand whether the fragrances — whether in spray or powder form — will make toilets and pit latrines more inviting for users.

For Gates, the visit to Firmenich was the latest example of one of the richest men in the world using his platform to raise awareness that everyone poops. One of the challenges the foundation faces is the taboo against talking about sanitation, even though it’s a natural part of life for everyone, rich or poor, Brian Arbogast, director of the water, sanitation and hygiene team at Gates Foundation, told Devex in an email interview.

Saturday is World Toilet Day, a campaign to raise awareness of sanitation problems — like the fact that 1 billion people on the planet lack access to toilets. And global development professionals cannot integrate sanitation into all of their projects until or unless they get more comfortable talking about poop, Arbogast told Devex.

Here’s what else he had to say about the Gates Foundation’s WASH strategy and the solutions he’s most excited about right now:

My understanding is that the Gates Foundation WASH program has five strategies: transformative technologies, urban sanitation markets, building demand for sanitation, policy and advocacy, and monitoring and evaluation. How have those five strategies evolved in recent years and can you give us insight into any changes expected in the near future?

At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we believe everyone has the right to live healthy, productive, and dignified lives in an environment free from fecal sludge, which is extremely toxic. In many developing countries, sewer systems fail to reach poor communities, leaving them few choices for containing and disposing of fecal matter in a safe and effective way. To bridge gaps, we work to address two fundamental challenges:

1. Expanding and improving sanitation without central sewers — because decentralized, often informal systems remain by far the most common type of sanitation service used by the poor.
2. Ensuring sanitation tools and services are appropriate, affordable, and sustainable, especially in areas of the world where shortages of water and electricity are already a concern.

Such realities underscore the need for a holistic approach, requiring investments on developing transformative user-centered technology solutions, catalyzing urban sanitation markets, building demand for sanitation services, advocating for pro-poor sanitation policies, and conducting relevant monitoring and evaluation for continued learning and impact across the entire fecal-sludge management supply chain.

So we remain committed to each of these investment areas. We expect that, in time, enough of our transformative technologies will have become embodied in products and services that there will be a sustainable, competitive marketplace of sanitation options available to the poor, at which time we’ll be able to reduce the share of our investments that go into this area.

Which proposals capture your attention? I've read for example that you're drawn to solutions that combine technology and WASH but also that you emphasize the need to balance technology and non-technology based solutions. I would like to highlight anything our readers might want to know as they consider ways to work with the Gates Foundation in this arena.

The proposals that catch our attention are the ones that offer the potential for great impact, but also high enough risk that other sources are unlikely to fund them. Bill, Melinda and Warren [Buffett] all encourage us to take risks that others wouldn’t, as long as we see the potential for large-scale solution if the solution turns out to be a success. We like to catalyze opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise happen.

In fact, it was the near-complete lack of innovation in urban non-sewered sanitation that led us to focus in this area, so critical to the health and dignity of the urban poor. We saw an opportunity to make investments that, while individually risky, had the potential to address the market’s failure to provide alternatives to expensive sewers and centralized wastewater treatment plants.

Can you describe the impact of a specific Gates Foundation grant or investment in WASH and how those results shaped your approach? Ideally I'd like to hear a story from your time at the Gates Foundation that did the most to contribute to your "bullish optimism" — as you put it in a recent interview — for the potential of technological sanitation solutions.

When I joined the Gates Foundation, our team was getting ready to start a partnership with the Asian Development Bank. While they invested over $3 billion a year into water and sanitation projects, less than 0.25 percent of that was being invested into nonsewered sanitation. We created a Sanitation Financing Partnership Trust Fund and helped their loan officers learn about how investments in nonsewered approaches could deliver tremendous results for their clients and now, three years later, this very successful partnership has resulted in these approaches make up an increasing share of the work that they fund, to the benefit of more developing cities every year.

Outside of your work at the Gates Foundation, what are some WASH solutions that you are most excited about, and what more do you think is needed to achieve universal access to sanitation by 2030?

There are a number of companies, such as SOIL in Haiti, x-runner in Peru, or Clean Team in Ghana, that have built service businesses where they provide a toilet to people in their homes, which they empty regularly. They charge a fee for the service, and then make further revenue by turning the waste into a sellable product, such as fertilizer. While these are not companies that our program has initiated or invested in, they represent the kind of entrepreneurial commitment and passion that will be necessary to find and scale innovative approaches to solving our global sanitation challenges.

How will you be celebrating or otherwise taking action around World Toilet Day, and what outcomes do you hope to see this year as compared to past years?

We’re pumped to celebrate! (Pun intended.) World Toilet Day is a day for elevating awareness, action, and accountability around sanitation. With billions of people lacking adequate sanitation globally, the stakes couldn’t be higher — especially in this new era of rapid urbanization, which has resulted in an ever-increasing number of people living in densely populated informal settlements and urban slums. What’s exciting about this year’s World Toilet Day is that we now have more local leaders than ever talking about sanitation, and in particular the need — as summarized in the Sustainable Development Goals, established only last year — SDG 6 is to treat all of the waste that we generate, thus dramatically reducing the levels of fecal contamination and thus sickness in cities of all sizes.

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About the author

Catherine cheney devex
Catherine Cheneycatherinecheney

Catherine Cheney covers the West Coast global development community for Devex. Since graduating from Yale University, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees in political science, Catherine has worked as a reporter and editor for a range of publications including World Politics Review, POLITICO, and NationSwell, a media company and membership network she helped to build. She is also an ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network and the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute.


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